Originally called Zane's Island, after its first proprietor, Ebenezer Zane, this tear-shaped island in the Ohio River is approximately one and three-quarters mile long and one-half mile wide at its broadest point. Wheeling Downs, a greyhound racetrack, occupies the former West Virginia State Fair Grounds at the island's southern tip, and a city park is at the northern end. In between lies a predominantly residential neighborhood of closely built houses. Although the island is separated from downtown Wheeling by the main, or east, channel of the Ohio River, it lies entirely within West Virginia.
Georges Henri Victor Collot, traveling downstream on the river in 1796, was among the first to write about the island: “Opposite Weeling [ sic] is a beautiful spot, called Weeling's Island, exactly the form of a triangle: the land is sufficiently high to preserve it from all inundation.” Later events would prove the fallacy of his last observation, but almost all early observers agreed with Collot's assessment of the island's beauty and bucolic nature.
As late as 1848, there were only five houses on the island, but when the Wheeling Suspension Bridge was completed a year later, the situation literally changed overnight. The day after the bridge opened, a sale of fifty island lots was advertised in The Wheeling Intelligencerunder the prophetic headline “Wheeling's First Suburb!” In the 1870s, after city water and gas lines were extended to the island, a second spurt of growth ensued. In 1881 the West Virginia Exposition and State Fair Association purchased twenty-five acres at the island's southern tip and soon launched the state fair, held annually in September until 1940.
A disastrous series of floods late in the nineteenth century convinced many islanders to join the flight to the suburbs that mainlanders had already initiated. Those who stayed jacked their houses up on temporary stilts, then built new and higher foundations with permanent materials. High foundations have continued to be the norm ever since. A concomitant to the need for high foundations is the need for repairs, and few houses on Wheeling Island survive in pristine condition. Houses tend to display whatever materials and designs were available at home repair centers at the time they were needed, usually just after a flood. Consequently, aluminum or vinyl siding, storm doors, and indoor-outdoor carpeting are present in great profusion. Though some houses, particularly those in the 300 and 400 blocks of South Front Street, are high style, most represent a more vernacular building tradition.
Zane Street commences at the western end of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and ends at the Bridgeport Bridge across the back channel of the Ohio River. It aligns southeast to northwest, following the route of the old National Road. The island's chief commercial artery, Zane Street separates two divergent grid patterns and is used as the dividing line between north and south designations for streets that intersect it.
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